Boldly (or foolishly) going where I haven’t gone before: HTML5

I’m teaching Writing for the World Wide Web right now, a course I’ve taught about once (sometimes twice) a year since I developed it back around 1999/2000.  There’s always been a coding component to the course, and despite the changes in web publishing that have taken place over the last decade or so, I still firmly believe students in this writing course should have to get in there with HTML and CSS, even with things like wordpress and social networks where coding is really unnecessary.

When I first learned and started teaching this stuff back in the mid-1990s, you could make analogies between making web pages and the early days of printing:  that is, the first printers made the books, wrote the books (or printed previously written books like the Bible), and sold the books, all pretty much out of the same shop.  Back in the day, working in “web publishing” meant you wrote copy and you wrote code, and you probably did some other computer server stuff too.  I don’t think that’s as true anymore, at least based on what I see in ads and what students out on the job market tell me.

That said, I think a “working knowledge” of HTML and CSS is still pretty important even for that tech/pro writer who is only going to be writing copy that goes into a CMS or that someone else codes/deals with.  I had a student a few years ago in this class who had (still does, actually) a “real job” as a tech writer and she told me that after my class, she was able to have completely different and more productive conversations with the person who actually deals with the company’s web site.  So even if this student doesn’t do a whole lot more with HTML and CSS herself, I feel like my mission has been accomplished.

Now, I’ve always had a bit of a “learning along with my students” approach to code.  One of my first publications was “Teachers Learning (Not Teaching) HTML With Students: An Experimental Lesson Plan for Introducing Web Authoring Into Writing Classes.” The title is basically what it’s about:  instead of “teaching” coding to students– which suggests and/or requires a certain level of expertise that is above and beyond the students’ knowledge– why not try to learn how to do HTML along with students?  I called this an “experimental lesson plan” because back then, I really did know more about HTML coding than the vast majority of my students.  But I kind of put myself in this position of learning along with my students when I first started messing with CSS.  In fact, I was a “leader” in a workshop on CSS (along with people who knew what they were doing, Bill Hart-Davidson and Steve Benninghoff) where I knew nothing about CSS, and it was a good year or two of teaching Writing for the WWW after that before I finally got a working knowledge of CSS under my belt.  Anyway, all this is to say that I have had plenty of these “let’s learn this together” kinds of experiences in this and other classes, and generally, I think it works out.

So with that in mind, I decided to give this HTML5 thing a whirl in my class, even though I knew nothing about it before the term began.  We’re using Head First HTML5 Programming, which builds off of the book Head First HTML with CSS and XHTML.  I like the approach that Eric Freeman and Elisabeth Robson take in explaining HTML and CSS in that book and it seems like they do a pretty decent job of picking out the highlights of what’s most important to understand and what you need to know.  So I am willing to trust them when it comes to them explaining the basics of HTML5.  And this brings me to a disturbing realization that is settling in as I try to learn with/teach my students this:  I’m not sure I understand HTML5, and I’m not convinced I ever will.

I’ve always thought it was kind of silly when people claimed that HTML and CSS were “programming languages” because, well, they’re not– or, without going too deeply into the definition of “programming” (let alone “language”), HTML is just not that complicated, and CSS is only just a little more complicated.  It certainly is not learning a new language. In contrast, HTML5 is essentially javascript, and that my friends, that is a computer language, and thus there is a reason why this book is called HTML Programming.

I am barely ahead of my students in the book as I write this post (and no, I didn’t read the book before I assigned it, something I do all the time, believe it or not), and I have two reactions so far.  First, this is waaaaay over my head, though since many of my students are better at and more practiced in mathematical equations than me (the last math class I took was in 1984, and I learned the other day that my high school freshmen-level son has now eclipsed my math skills based on his coursework), they might have a better handle on this.  We’ll see.  Second, I am not yet convinced that this is something that needs to be in a class about writing for the web, for while I think a working knowledge of HTML and CSS is pretty important for understanding how content online works and it is definitely a “writerly” activity, it seems to me that HTML5 so far is so much more programming-oriented.  From what I’ve learned so far, I don’t think I need to know HTML5 to successfully write web-based content in the same way I don’t need to know how my transmission works to drive my car.

Mind you, it’s interesting, much in the same way that it might be interesting to take a class in transmission repair.  I’m just not sure it’s necessary for me and my students to know, and I don’t think I’ve ever put myself so far out there on teaching “learning” something along with my students.

One thought on “Boldly (or foolishly) going where I haven’t gone before: HTML5”

  1. Great post, Steve. This is a difficult issue, and one that my colleagues and I have frequently discussed here at Virginia Tech. Part of the problem, I think, is that HTML5 is often used as a catch-all term for a lot of different technologies. We looked at the Head First book for use in our Writing for the Web course, but it seemed too focused on the development of web apps (rather than some of the semantic features of HTML5 that might be more helpful for a traditional tech writing student).

    I think HTML5 can be amazing for technical writers, especially in how it is changing best practices–shifting away from a structure of divs and instead turning to articles, sections, asides, etc. I think this is especially important as it provides tools for more rhetorically-aware design (I’m thinking especially of Marcotte’s responsive design).

    I haven’t, however, been able to find a textbook that really covers the material. In a way, it’s all too new and changing too quickly. I’ve been encouraging my students to keep an eye on industry: following professionals on Twitter, listening to the 5×5 podcasts, reading A List Apart. But yes, at the moment there is something of a fine line between being able to speak with a mechanic and building a transmission.

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